I have been asked to write an essay on the ecological aspect of architecture in Europe during the last twenty years. I found it impossible. Ecological architecture, or more precisely, the ecological house, was an issue of the 19 70s. It turned out to be a trap!
The ecological house was a North American idea which others followed. You had to be rich and a drop-out, to have some technical skill and to be able to afford to live all alone in a remote, abandoned region -with, however, all the technological resources just around the corner. In addition you had to be abreast of the most advanced scientific breakthroughs of the day, and artistic enough to give your house a shape that reporters from magazines could immediately recognize as ecological.
The sport of ecological house building was adapted to local conditions in West Germany, as elsewhere. where there were no deserts or prairies; but there were farmers who could no longer compete in the modern market and would sell off their traditional houses. So ecologically minded people bought smallholdings and built on them. Or did they? / can't be sure any more. AIII remember are plans and slides of sumptuous bathrooms with tree trunks inside, then other slides of apple tree branches framing lumicolour sketches of houses that were smaller than the bathrooms.
The ancestral day houses, however, are hard to forget. They really did exist. Clay houses have a long history in Germany. They were built in the 18th century when wood was scarce. And they were built again in 1946. In the 1970s, some people did not realize that they were living in clay houses; when they did. the authorities pulled them down because it was considered backward and shameful to have such a thing in your parish.
While the authorities were demolishing old clay houses, the progressive, modern architects were building new ones. So much for ecological balance! But there was an additional problem to solve, one of appearance. If you did not want to use wooden cladding to protect the walls of your house in the rainy climate of Germany, because you were a modern, progressive architect; then you built a large, overhanging roof. As a result, the most recent of the German clay houses look like Swiss chalets. There is, by the way, an abundance of wood these days. This is because the dying forests of Eastern Europe that have been poisoned by lignite fumes (produced in part by the baking of day for houses) are being sold off very cheaply.
By the end of the 1970s, the ecologists realized that the houses under the apple trees did not solve the energy problem. So the 1980s became the insulation decade.
Two-thirds of new housing in Germany, at least in larger towns and cities, are those bland structures dating from the reconstruction period of the 1950s. In the early 1980s, when you walked along a street with such buildings, which had not been very charming to begin with, you realized that the houses seemed suddenly to have put on weight. The windows, which had once been flush with the plaster, were now sunk deep inside the bulging walls. And inside these new apertures you could see new insulation glass lodged in large, shapeless frames. This is how owners obtained subsidies for insulation from the government. /4s a result, the occupants now had lower fuel bills - and mildew stains on their wallpaper. Other owners, with superior aesthetic sensibilities, preferred to add loggia-like glass corridors to the outside of their houses to create zones with intermediate temperatures between the open air and the living area. This was a kind of 'post-modern' version of ecological architecture.
It is true to say that by now the ecological house has 'improved', like everything else. Today, it looks like any quite ordinary one-family house erected by a speculator. But what may look like swimming pools inside and outside are not what they seem -facilities for the fitness and recreation of wealthy clients who might be tempted to buy such houses. As my experienced readers already know, the pools are used to collect rain water from the roof. This water is heated by the sun whose rays enter the house through openings that are regulated electronically. Electronic regulators decide what water will go where: to the swimming pool for family use; or to the tanks for the cultivation of perches; or to the kitchen for the dishwasher and washing machine. The one place the water will not go to is the toilet; there are now peat toilets which do not waste water. But the water with the excrement of the perches will be redirected to the garden, complete with ready-made fertilizer.
Every one of these houses has received an award from some ecological society and has attracted a circle of admirers. These houses also have severe critics, however, who say that the water or the air should have been circulating the other way round, first to the perches and then to the heating. Such people are no longer invited to the annual perch-eating party.
And there are other critics. They have thoughts that are even more threatening to the ecological house. The man with the self-heated swimming pool, they argue, would save even more energy if he lived in town, in an ordinary flat, and went to the office on foot or by bicycle. And sceptical criticism soon became even more sophisticated: where do all these materials, all these electronic gadgets and electronic pumps with which we try to economize energy and not pollute the environment come from? How much energy is consumed in producing and transporting them? Where do the obsolete and non-functioning pieces of equipment end up? And what can we do with this refuse of unknown materials? Shall we store it or burn it? Because the recycling of unknown materials is an impossibility. These are the sort of questions one may ask not only of ecological houses, but also of ordinary ones. A house is a complicated assembly of materials which are produced by methods involving a loss of energy and which produce pollution either when they are being made or after they have been used. Perhaps through cost benefit calculations of this kind we could develop an approach to shelters that would really be ecological.
Ecology's most important problem is that it is invisible. You cannot produce the visual sensation of harmony simply by being ecological any more than the reverse. This is obvious in gardening. Because we are all Geologists' now, no one has a lawn without weeds, everyone has a meadow in bloom. In agriculture, the meadow has its stability, but without cows it is an intermediate stage in a sequence of changing vegetable associations. To stop this sequence and to conserve the meadow is as expensive in terms of energy consumption and fertilizers as growing a weed/ess lawn used to be.
The same is the problem with architecture: you cannot see an ecological building. Of course you can build the image of an ecological house. The house under the apple tree, for instance. Or you can calculate how to save energy and how to clean up the environment. The problem with the second is that nobody will take pictures of it and publish it.
Atelier dTurbanisme, d'architecture et d'informatique Lucien Kroll THE MEDICAL FACULTY AT WOLUWE-SAINT LAMBERT, 'LA MÉMÉ'
(Louvain, Belgium) 1968-72
No other building can better claim the title of monument to the May 1968 Utopian populist movement than Kroll's Medical Faculty of the University of Louvain. To conceive of it as a monument' is, of course, a contradiction in terms since it stands against the very notion of monumentality. But the need to preserve the memory of important events is a deep cognitive one that goes beyond transient ideologies, even if such events are paradoxically concerned with trying to abolish memory as something that inhibits liberation and invention. Therefore, as long as May 1968 continues to be seen as a significant moment in the history of the mentality of this century, the significance of Kroll's building as a 'monument' is undeniable.
'Two approaches to housing are possible', Kroll wrote when he began the design of this building in 1968. One is 'authoritarian', with 'specialists' producing 'objects to live in' which rationally, comfortably and hygienically 'reinforce the industrial division and boredom of students'; the other is 'participatory and pluralistic', involving each individual 'as a person and not as a function' in an 'exchange of responsibilities and a sharing of roles'. Considering the impasse that the first had lead to, the obvious choice was the second.
As opposed to the 'hard' 1960s high rises next to it, Kroll's building was intended to be soft, 'a big sponge', pierced 'with internal, exterior, horizontal, vertical, oblique, underground and rising pathways'. Kroll's premise was that it was 'irrational' to impose identical elements on different dwellings, because 'forms are not static, they change in ways that are always unexpected, and when walking through them they continuously change their configuration.' Hence the diversity in the materials of the windows, in their colours, their curtains, their balconies, their plants, in the surfaces of the facades, in the shapes of the apartments, all contributing to the impression of a coherent crowd of anarchic individuals taking part in a festive demonstration.
Kroll received the commission when, as a result of the students' protests over, among other things, housing conditions, the Catholic University of Louvain decided to change traditional procedures and consult its students in the choice of the architect for a new facility near Woluwe-Saint Lambert. The project was to accommodate a university hospital, medical facilities and residences for the personnel. The medical students bypassed professional organizations and asked the advice of their fellow students of the Ecole Nationale Supérieure of La Cambre of Brussels, with whom they shared a mistrust for established institutional professionalism and a common desire for a new, anti-elitist way of distributing specialized services in society. As a result of this consultation,
44 THE MEDICAL FACULTY AT WOLUWE-SAINT LAMBERT. 'LA MÉMÉ'
Oppotito. right) The original ichomo, as dnwn by lucien Kroll
Abo*«» A »egmant of tha larger complex of LaftUme
Lucien Kroll - a graduate of La Cambre himself - was selected by the students as the architect of the project and, astonishingly, the University of Louvain approved the student decision and hired him.
Kroll had worked during the 1960s for the community of the Belgian Benedictines in Ruanda, an irrelevant experience at first glance. It made him, however, start looking at architecture through the eyes of an ethnolo gist', viewing the traditional life of Central Africa from within rather than as a pro fessional. from the outside. Reasonable as it may appear today, after a significant shift of sensibility has occurred, this was a very com peiling stance at the time. On his return to Europe. Kroll's viewpoint was similar to that of the dissenting students. He refused to accept the established division of labour between a paternalistic, oligarchic profession and sub missive laymen. Furthermore, he refused to adopt preconceived formulas to impose on the building. On the contrary, the solution was to emerge from within and out of a dialogue between users and architect.
The first step he took was to convince the university authorities to abandon their preliminary programmatic assumptions which meticulously divided the project into clear zones according to the function and status of the users. In this manner, one of the most fascinating. but also most questionable, experiments in architecture of this century started, challenging preconceptions not only about the form of buildings but also the very process through which this form was produced.
The principle of user participation in the design process was implemented architecturally through a design system which conceived the building as made from a dual structure: a fixed skeleton, accommodating structural and service elements, and the infilling or envelop
THE MEDICAL FACULTY AT WOtUWE SAINT LAMBERT. LA M£M£- 45
(Top) General view of 'bricolaged' La Màmé, set against a background of post-war, modernist housing ing building elements. This two-part system was at least a decade old as an Idea; the Dutch architect Nicolaas John Habraken should be credited with formalizing it. But here the concept was put to the test and on a significant scale.
In addition, Kroll modified earlier proposals for the fixed skeleton. Instead of a repetitive, neutral, 'engineering grid' of the same form. Kroll moved around the bearing elements to accommodate the variety of the activities located between them, reflecting the plurality and individuality of needs as they were expressed by the users. Columns, to use Kroll's expression, 'ambled' rather than marched. To achieve this spatial flexibility technically, a 'mushroom' structure was applied, expensive in terms of materials, but cutting construction costs.
Once the structure skeleton was fixed, facade and partition components were to be inserted. This was done jointly by architects and users. Occasionally, the users fabricated and built in these infill pieces, participating not only conceptually, but also physically and even economically in the construction by investing their own time and effort.
Justified on functional and economic terms, the system was ultimately symbolic and its target educational-political. Kroll believed that the form of a building had an impact on its users' way of thinking. 'Regular columns', Kroll stated, 'make conformists. Irregular ones challenge the imagination.' The same attitude prevailed in the multi-colour, -size, -material and -proportion elements of the facade. The combination of the dictates of individual, functional reasons and their inscription within
(Top) General view of 'bricolaged' La Màmé, set against a background of post-war, modernist housing
(Opposite, below) Ground plan of a storey, chosen arbitrarily
46 THE MEDICAL FACULTY AT WOLUWE-SAINT LAMBERT. 'LA MÉMÉ'
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